Seton Hall may only be 8-9 on paper, but Jamie Dixon and his players know that even in the Big East, an 8-9 team can present problems. Seton Hall has been no exception over the years, and will be no exception on Saturday night.
In fact, the Pirates recently got a boost when Jeremy Hazell came back into the lineup. Hazell broke a bone in his left wrist in just the third game of the season in a win over Alabama. He returned Wednesday with a game-high 23 points off the bench, leading Seton Hall to a 78-67 win over DePaul.
"He's a really great scorer," guard Travon Woodall said. "I think it's his last year, and he's playing a lot more efficient than he was his first couple of years. I think he's playing much more patient. He's doing a good job. I think the team is a lot more dangerous with him. At the same time, they're still adjusting to playing with him. We just have to jump on them early like we have with everyone else."
In last season's win over Pitt, Hazell got in foul trouble, yet still finished with nine points in 16 minutes of play. In a 83-58 win for the Panthers on February 6 of last year, Hazell was held to just 2-of-7.
"They're a good team," senior center Gary McGhee added. "They have Hazell, he's a great scorer. He gets points in bunches. That's something that we have to look forward to, in containing him."
Then there's big man Herb Pope, a local product from Aliquippa, who has gone on to be one of the Big East's top rebounders over the last two seasons. Pope leads the Pirates, averaging 8.8 rebounds a game.
"Herb Pope is a good player, a good rebounder," McGhee added. "We have to keep him off the glass."
Already this season, Pitt has had to deal with UConn's Kemba Walker, Providence's Marshon Brooks, Marquette's Darius Johnson-Odom, and the Georgetown duo of Chris Wright and Austin Freeman. Now, the Panthers must deal with Hazell and Pope. McGhee and his teammates wouldn't have it any other way.
"It's just another night in the Big East," McGhee said. "This is what I signed up for. We go up against players like this every night. It's fun every night, going up against good teams and good players."
On a more personal level, head coach Jamie Dixon recruited Pope out of high school. Even though Pope decided not to come to Pitt, Dixon says he has remained close with Pope over the last few years, especially when Pope collapsed during an offseason workout back in April.
That day, on his way to the weight room, Pope collapsed right outside the weight room door. Seton Hall athletic training personnel were on hand, and through CPR, were able to resuscitate Pope, who was not breathing.
Pope suffered from a rare condition where the right coronary artery was pinched, cutting off blood flow. Pope had surgery to repair the artery. Dixon, obviously affected by his sister Maggie's passing in 2006 to a heart-related condition, reached out to the Pope family and to the Seton Hall coaching staff.
"I was talking to his aunt," Dixon said, who was kept up to date on Pope's progress. "They were coming out of the hospital, coaches in constant communication, initially right after it happened. Herb and I go way back. We're very close. I root for him."
Dixon has helped start up the Maggie Dixon foundation, and the Maggie Dixon Heart Health Fair--which coincides each year with Pitt's annual Fan Fest for the men's and women's basketball team. Pope's heart condition hit home for him, obiviously because he's seen it in his own family, but also the fact he's remained close with Pope over the years.
"It strikes at any time," Dixon said. "I'm not exactly sure what his situation is. I know they had to repair something. It is good to see him playing. We know how quickly things can change. It's good to see him out there.
"He was there in practice (when he collapsed). They had medical personnel close by. They were able to get to him rather quickly. As we all know that's so important and key to survival."
In addition to Pope's homecoming--who led his Aliquippa team to a 2006 WPIAL championship at the Petersen Events Center--it's a homecoming for former Pitt player Kevin Willard, who was a three-year letterwinner for the Panthers from 1994 to 1997. Willard also played for his dad Ralph Willard, who was head coach for the Panthers from 1994-99, right before Jamie Dixon arrived as an assistant under Ben Howland, who succeeded Willard.
"They're not as different as you'd think," Dixon said, referring to Seton Hall being under a new head coach. "They run a lot of the sets that their previous coach, coach (Bobby) Gonzalez ran.
"I do know Kevin very well. It's a unique situation. I was just thinking about it, here's a guy coming home; a place where he graduated and where he played at. He's always been very kind. Once I got here, I met him. We've been friends ever since then. I got to know him as a coach. Kevin always spoke glowingly of his experience at Pittsburgh. It's unique. He's never had but kind words in the many times I've talked with him."